A brief history of MSF’s relation to human rights and a presentation of the current challenges
Médecins sans Frontières is in an interesting situation when its comes to discussing the intersection of Human Rights Law, International humanitarian law and humanitarian action, as it has successively adopted a large number of different approaches. In its early years, MSF defined itself as an organisation whose neutrality was absolute, far from the present organisation that cultivates both assistance and speaking out on an equal footing. Its first charter stipulated that “its members would refrain from any interference in States’s internal affairs”. As a co-founder of the organisation put it in 1971, “doctors don’t go to witness, they go to treat”.
It did not take very long for it to change its position, but I would like to stress here the fact that there is no legitimate choice applicable to all circumstances. Decisions made are the result of political choices, impacted by the ideological confrontations faced, and by the way it sees its role within the international community.
Starting at the end of the 1970s, MSF moved to adopting a strong anti-totalitarian stance. This move was based on its analysis that communist totalitarianism was the source of the contemporary genocidal process. In its work in refugee camps– which grew from three million to eleven million people between the late 1970s and early 1980s – MSF observed that 90% of them were fleeing from communist regimes. At the same time, the organisation spoke out in an attempt to extract itself from situations where it believed humanitarian aid was “having a perverse effect” to the point of becoming “complicit in criminal policies” – as in Ethiopia in 1985. In 1988, a Board member said: “As a ‘human rights practitioner’, MSF is thinking of participating in the drafting of a new universal declaration.” The organisation chose to act in times of war, as a human rights sentinel.
The years that followed brought a succession of great hopes and major disillusions. Following the fall of the Berlin wall and the dismantlement of the Soviet empire, MSF welcomed the growing involvement of the UN and western nations in conflicts, in order to “guarantee genuine access to victims and an end to human rights violations. It quickly went on to denouncing the humanitarian alibi: state humanitarianism as an alternative to war against criminal regimes.
An over-simplified analysis would be that MSF, between 1990 and 2000, gradually became disillusioned in the face of its confrontations with military-humanitarian interventions, starting in 1993 when Rony Brauman wrote: “In Somalia, people were killed for the first time under the banner of humanitarism”. The organisation became more and more sceptical vis-à-vis its “speaking out” and its consequences: by publicly exposing war crimes and the misappropriation or obstruction of humanitarian assistance, MSF may in fact have been encouraging the use of international military as legal measures against the perpetrators. It went on to clearly distinguish its role as a Humanitarian organisation from that of the defence of human rights. Over the last few years, MSF has been more hesitant than ever to speak out about the emergencies in which it intervenes.
So what now? The experience of MSF in Darfur shows how liberal interventionism can be both a liability (getting involved in calls for intervention) and an opportunity (UN / US pressures on the government of Sudan resulting in increased access for NGOs). Is this maybe a way for MSF to act vis-à-vis human rights, maintaining a respectful distance, while trying to seize the opportunity for ad hoc partnerships?